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Mistake: Joe Biden Wants to ‘Talk’ and ‘Engage’ with China

Biden China Policy
Image: Obama White House Flickr.

Reuters reports that in late August a senior defense official had talked with a Chinese general in a video call conducted over the U.S.-PRC Defense Telephone Link.

A “U.S. official” speaking without attribution told the news organization that the purpose of the communication was “to focus on managing risk between the two countries.” It was the first mil-to-mil conversation with China in the Biden administration.

There is only one way for the U.S. to “manage risk” with a militant regime, and it does not involve hotline conversations.

According to the Reuters report, Michael Chase, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, spoke to Major General Huang Xueping, deputy director for the Office for International Military Cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army.

“Both sides agreed on the importance of maintaining open channels of communication between the two militaries,” the unnamed official told Reuters.

In general, there is nothing wrong with the U.S. talking with the Chinese military. After all, the Pentagon talked to the Soviets throughout the Cold War, sometimes over the hotline put in place in August 1963 following the Cuban Missile Crisis. As is often said, direct communication reduces the chances of misunderstanding, something especially important in a time of crisis.

The Chase-Huang call, however, was the result of weeks of negotiation and preparation and is unlikely to accomplish its goal, namely, paving the way for immediate communication in the event of a crisis. Conversation with China’s military during the last three decades has been especially difficult. As the Economist notes, “communications were routinely broken off just when they were needed most—during crises such as those over Taiwan in 1996, America’s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and the EP-3 incident in 2001.”

Chinese officers did not answer the phone when their American counterparts called in the immediate wake of the collision between a Chinese jet and a U.S. Navy EP-3 near China’s Hainan Island in April 2001. No one in China wanted to talk to the American side before top leaders established their political line on the crisis.

An agreement establishing a U.S.-China hotline for emergency military communication was inked in February 2008, but there has been no major crisis since then. Therefore, Americans still don’t know whether the Chinese side will pick up the receiver when needed.

“The Chinese Communist Party has no history of hotlines to its enemies for good reason,” China military analyst Richard Fisher told 1945. “China wants to dominate and intimidate its enemies and control any negotiations following a military crisis. For the Communist Party, responding to a hotline call holds the risk of losing the initiative and losing the conflict.”

As Fisher, a senior fellow of the Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, points out, there are few reasons to think the hotline will help in the crises of the future.

Even in peaceful times, conversation with China’s regime has proven to be difficult. As Reuters reports, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has not yet spoken to his Chinese counterpart “in part because there was a debate about which Chinese official was Austin’s counterpart.” In fact, Austin has no counterpart, and in China, unlike America, there is no state military.

Really? The Chinese state does not have an army. The People’s Liberation Army reports to the Communist Party. Americans may think this is an unimportant distinction, but the Party vociferously—and continuously—maintains that the PLA is not a state army.

In any event, August was the wrong moment for Deputy Assistant Secretary Chase to talk to Major General Huang according to Jim Fanell. Fanell, a retired U.S. Navy captain who served as director of Intelligence and Information Operations of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, points out the Pentagon initiated the calls but did not, as a prerequisite, set “conditions” on China’s behavior. China’s armed forces, Fanell said in comments to 1945, has in recent days been “ramping up its intimidation against our friends and allies in the Western Pacific.”

“The Biden administration is returning to a policy of unconstrained and unaccountable engagement with the People’s Republic, all in the name of diplomacy,” said Fanell, now a noted China commentator. “This policy strategy had a forty-year run and by any measure it failed.”

Fanell is correct. Over the course of four decades, Americans worked hard to engage the Chinese state in the hopes of integrating it into the liberal international system, to make it a “responsible stakeholder,” as Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick famously said in a 2005 speech.

As China grew stronger, it did not become benign, however, and now Xi Jinping apparently believes he can do what he wants. China’s top two diplomats, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, made that clear when they traveled to Alaska to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in the middle of March. “So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang said in his opening remarks.

Beijing has repeated the America-cannot-stop-us narrative numerous times since, such as in an authoritative August 10 People’s Daily piece titled “U.S. No Longer Has the Position of Strength for Its Arrogance and Impertinence.”

When China believes it does not have to listen to others, seeking conversation is the last thing Washington should do. Seeking conversation, unfortunately, only feeds Chinese arrogance and reinforces the notion in Beijing that Americans must have China’s cooperation, in other words, that China has a veto over American policy.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and The Great U.S.-China Tech War. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Written By

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Great U.S.-China Tech War and Losing South Korea, booklets released by Encounter Books. His previous books are Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World and The Coming Collapse of China, both from Random House. Chang lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades, most recently in Shanghai, as Counsel to the American law firm Paul Weiss and earlier in Hong Kong as Partner in the international law firm Baker & McKenzie.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. SkippingDog

    August 31, 2021 at 2:24 pm

    Why would you not want the U.S. and China to “talk” about their geopolitical differences? Do we just go straight to war?

  2. Flimzii

    August 31, 2021 at 5:31 pm

    At this point, I’m honestly sick of geopolitics. Why don’t we actually put bureaucrats of both governments in a ring to start fighting than just disagreements?

  3. Slack

    August 31, 2021 at 7:00 pm

    NO COUNTRY, or its ‘leader’, should be at the beck and call of another. UNLESS you desire a superior master-vassal minion type of relationship.

    Differences, percieved or real, should be dealt with by embassies plus specially picked skilled negotiators/negotiating team. Otherwise why have so MASSIVE numbers of diplomats in foreign lands today.

    To forestall a master-minion relationship from developing, a free and independent and sovereign nation must have a strong defense with a strong military fighting force AS SHOWN just days ago in Afghanistan and earlier in Vietnam.

    Remember the age-old adage, ‘It is fear that guards the vineyard’. Humankind has lots of tales and experience about vineyard robbers. The US has invaded or attacked over 30 countries or places since 1945.

  4. Jimmy John Doe

    August 31, 2021 at 8:06 pm

    Negotiations or talks between countries should be handled by professionals, or qualified semi-professionals, not rank amateurs like generals and admirals or old folks like Joe Biden.

    America has lost its real professionals since the collapse of the USSR and in their place it only has goebellian experts who like to present harsh reality demands and non-negotiable requests. Next, go get the guns asap or the worldwide sanctions, please.

  5. FRAZIER STALL

    September 1, 2021 at 7:17 am

    Just before sending B-52s to pulverize Afghanistan, Bush sent a list filled with a number of non-negotiable demands to Taliban though Blair only said “Hand over osama or hand over power”. Shortly later, the disastrous 20-year afghan war began.

    The arrogance of the 2 powers mirrored that shown by austro-hungary in 1914 when it similarly presented a long list of no-deal-possible demands to Serbia and shortly later, the very disastrous 4-year great war began.

    Humans must learn lessons from such atrocious international conduct and never allow themselves to be trapped into facing non-negotiable deals where one side acts as master while the other side acts as subservient junior or victim.

    In both cases, the demander or master eventually lost when the subservient victim summoned incredible will to snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Always remember, the demander or blackmailer understands only the language of repelling force or counter force.

  6. Matthew Jacobs

    September 1, 2021 at 12:35 pm

    GOD HELP US

  7. Deborah598

    September 1, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    Biden has screwed up enough, no thanks. Look what he did to the Marines and the Americans left behind. Why on earth would we want this administration representing Americans after the Afghanist debacle?

  8. Walter W. Cox

    September 6, 2021 at 10:11 pm

    President Obama: “Never underestimate Joe’s ability to f__k things up.”

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